DIALOGUE IV (part one)Karsten Xuereb @XuerebK (La Valeta, Malta), Piatã Stoklos Kignel @piatask (Sao Paulo, Brasil), Lilian Hanania @LilianHanania (París, Francia), Anna Steinkamp annasteinkamp.de (Berlín, Alemania), Lázaro I. Rodríguez (Panamá), Gökçe Dervişoğlu Okandan #gökçedervişoğluokandan (Estambul, Turquía), Anupama Sekhar (India / Singapur). Coordina: Jordi Baltà @jordibalta

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One of the effects of the covid-19 crisis has been to foster international dialogue among people experiencing similar challenges, enabling some solidarity and a feeling of togetherness. The U40 network is an informal group of academics, practitioners, students and other people interested in cultural diversity, connected to the goals of the UNESCO Convention on the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. Since late March, the group has been regularly gathering online, discussing both the personal and professional implications of the crisis as well as what some of the future implications for cultural diversity and related areas may be. This article collects views from a few of the group members, who explore the current situation across several Asian, Latin American and European countries.

(First of two parts |English version, to go to the Spanish version click here)

1- AS VENUES AND EVENTS CLOSE AND THE CULTURAL SECTOR GOES ONLINE, WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES?

In most parts of the world, the spread of Covid-19 has impacted on many activities, including formal and informal cultural practices. While some trends are common, including the move towards online spaces, specific forms may differ, and different adaptation strategies and opportunities may be identified as well. What are some of the impacts of Covid-19 on cultural sectors, cultural practices and other cultural dynamics that you can observe in your own contexts?

Karsten Xuereb (Valletta, Malta): From a personal angle, my activity together with that of my colleagues at the cultural organisation Inizjamed, on the annual literature festival in Valletta, Malta, has changed significantly. The year 2020 marks the 15th anniversary of our festival, and a lot of work has already been undertaken. However, the plans we had, changed, since in all probability the event, as so many other similar happenings in other art forms around the world, will be cancelled or need to be re-thought. Therefore, we are carrying out a lot of collaboration online in order to exchange and generate ideas that may help writers, readers, publishers and our festival attendees in order to adapt to the challenging environment we are experiencing.

Piatã Stoklos Kignel (Sao Paulo, Brazil): In Brazil, we clearly see an enormous decrease of finance flow to the cultural sectors both for formal (by closing positions or stopping new recruiting in companies) and informal (less funds, sponsorships and new paid projects) jobs. On the other hand, the sector was heavily pushed to adapt to online platforms, a movement which I see as a benefit for itself since it can bring other kinds of revenue opportunities. In addition to that, professionals from cultural sectors are also showing their high creative aspects on developing different kinds of online events, meetings and wider educational programs.

Lilian Hanania (Paris, France): France has a particularly high number of public cultural spaces, such as theatres, cinemas, museums and libraries, all closed since mid-March due to sanitary reasons and with no perspective of reopening before summer. The covid-19 crisis is a major blow to the whole sector and the entire social dynamics of the country and especially in cities like Paris. The sudden decrease in tourism, usually an important source of revenue, is also highly damaging to the country’s economy and a big challenge.

Anna Steinkamp (Berlin, Germany): The biggest immediate impact was the sudden “virtualisation”. As Germany is still a bit reluctant when it comes to digitization, this was a positive side-effect. The sector quickly re-organised itself and most of them offered their service online (if possible) and/or joined forces with other professionals of their kind, as for example Berlin Clubs did when offering varying DJ-sets every other night. Now, some weeks already in shutdown, new funding, event and exchange formats start to emerge and it is nice to see how the sector (and many others) is reinventing itself. Further, we can observe an increasing recognition of the sector within society: culture is vital to our societies.

Lázaro I. Rodríguez (Panama): In the Latin American context, the Covid19 health crisis has had at least three tendencies: first, the role that artists have played in containing families at home during the pandemic. This fact reinforces the role of culture as free entertainment. Second, and also linked to the first one: the role of artists as social cohesion makers through creative, motivational and collaborative messages. Most of the culture ministries have generated digital channels to add free content and facilitated access with hashtags that reinforce the need to stay home and how culture helps to this. Last but not least, the crisis has again exposed the job insecurity of artists as part of the informal precarious workforce.

Gökçe Dervişoğlu Okandan (Istanbul, Turkey): In Turkey the initial reaction was to switch to online platforms especially to social media for organizing rather informal gatherings. There is a lot of broadcasting especially focusing on how to survive at home and on the daily life of the artist. On the other hand several industries (almost for the first time) are trying to initiate professional platforms, where to conduct related research and offer policy solutions. Unfortunately these gatherings lack the experience of advocacy tools. On the other hand, art schools have shifted to online education and it is challenging to continue practice-based courses but again very informally (through WhatsApp groups, personal video shoots, etc.) at least performing arts classes continue. However there is the tendency to read the circumstances related to a period, rather than to extend the changes to a longer period of time than necessary. So I doubt there will be a dramatic change in education. Several cultural institutions (mainly sponsored by the private sector) opened their digital archives. Some which have invested recently on virtual exhibition and Virtual Reality (VR) are visible through these efforts.

Anupama Sekhar (India / Singapore): Here in Singapore where I live, I see – as Anna does in Germany – increased virtualisation of the cultural calendar and of conversations, formal and informal, in the arts community. Public audiences in many parts of Asia, are, without doubt, enjoying the arts at home on their TVs, laptops and mobiles. In India, for example, the national broadcaster Doordarshan is repeatedly telecasting some of the most popular TV shows from the 1980s and 1990s. BBC reports of the grand success of ‘nostalgia TV’ from the golden days on Indian television: one re-telecast episode of the epic, The Ramayan was viewed by 77 million people on 16 April! This is apparently a new world record for the most-watched TV show globally: in comparison, The Big Bang Theory’s finale drew 18 million viewers, while 19.3 million watched the last episode of Game of Thrones. Outside of television, however, free streaming of exciting older and new artworks has sparked a fierce debate over art as free entertainment. This is similar to the debates in Latin America. Worries about short and long term financial sustainability of freelancers and smaller arts organisations have begun.

2- IMPACT ON ARTISTS AND CULTURAL PROFESSIONALS, AND POLICY RESPONSES

The changes outlined above are having a very high impact on the ability of artists and cultural professionals and organisations to maintain a regular income, and generally threaten already weak business models. Around the world, governments have adopted some urgent measures to address these challenges. We asked participants in the discussion for examples of what had been done in their respective countries and regions, and which challenges remained.

Karsten: Arts Council Malta has stepped in to fill a sort of vacuum left by other authorities by making available a grant related to specific cultural projects addressing our current and foreseeable cultural and social circumstances. There is a cap of EUR 7,500 per applicant. However, on a policy level, little or nothing has been envisaged, and long-term solutions are both needed, and at the moment of writing, still lacking.

Piatã: Despite actions from some big companies, like Netflix’s donation to audiovisual workers and, in Brazil’s case, São Paulos’s state creative economy program (such as microcredit for cultural sector among other initiatives), São Paulo’s municipality funding of online broadcasted art shows in balconies, and some other Brazilian companies’ initiatives like Itaú Cultural’s call for presentations, I see as the most relevant the fact that artists are widely learning how to well use their digital platforms to reach and dialogue directly with their public. Although this doesn’t necessarily bring any revenue right away, it can pave the path for it in the future. Concerning the federal government we see an unprecedented lack of action (since 1990’s democratization), together with both symbolic and economic downgrading in the appreciation of cultural expressions and an astonishing political setback shown by hatred and racist discourses, which enhances the magnitude of the crisis for the cultural sector.

Lilian: The French government has been announcing measures to support the sector. The role of the state in supporting the cultural sector in normal circumstances is already remarkable, particularly in comparison with other countries. The covid-19 crisis should bring new forms of support. Specifically regarding individual artists, support measures include guaranteeing payment to “intermittents du spectacle”, for instance, despite this inactive period (in a normal situation they need to work a certain number of hours per year in order to maintain their status). I believe culture should be at the heart of recovery and economic relaunch actions, particularly aiming at less favoured communities, which are the ones suffering the most in this particular context. The importance of culture for social cohesion should justify strong investment in the sector to reduce social cleavages created or strengthened these last months.

Anna: Cultural institutions were among the first to close. Quite quickly, a state response was there and the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media promised to not forget the sector. Within the overall emergency aid (Soforthilfe) adopted by the Federal Government, freelancers and artists were also considered and benefited from these emergency funds. Some weeks later, freelancers and artists are now in an uncertain position as the legal basis of these funds has apparently changed and can no longer be used for livelihood costs but for overhead costs only. However, artists and freelancers are not likely to have overhead costs but tend to work and train from home and to perform on stage. Therefore, an initiative of cultural practitioners launched an open letter to the Government. I have signed the letter because I find it completely unfair to neglect the life reality of artists, freelancers and cultural practitioners as it creates yet another unsecure situation for them and us. As an alternative, the HARTZ IV regulation – primary care – is offered as a solution to these persons that had solid income until some weeks ago. The crisis sheds light on the weakest parts of the system, which remains the fair remuneration of cultural and artistic work.

Lázaro: The crisis response measures have been similar in purpose across Latin American countries, but different in format. The search for reliable data through consultation and survey mechanisms has been the most common action implemented by the ministries of culture, and institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) or regional cooperation programs such as those related to the Ibero-American Cultural Space. These institutions established a regional study to measure the effects of COVID-19.  On the other hand, the surveys, such as #SúmateYa in Panama, are serving for the Ministry of Culture to update their data and establish focalized measures.

Gökçe: On a macro level there are no specific regulations to cultural and creative industries. Development agencies and research grant givers tend to include these industries into the scope of their general COVID calls. The Turkish Research Council has included an arts-related item in its general call. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has had some meetings with the Actor’s Union and the Theatre Cooperative, both influential advocacy actors in performing arts ,and the TESDER Entertainment Business Association. Sector representatives especially from live events did not directly receive financial support but there are postponements in the responsibilities of theatres which have received state support on tax and social security payments. Some efforts are underway for changing the status of independent theatre with a so-called “entrepreneurial support”. And some contracted staff of state theatres are now on the payroll to protect their social security liabilities. From the audience side, state and local governmental cultural institutions, like libraries, are trying to switch to digital media, and a state TV channel is broadcasting big productions like opera and theatres. Private cultural institutions have not received direct guidance from state or local governmental actors. With the upcoming economic crisis; I assume that the budgets of these institutions will decrease (even cut) unless there is a total tax exemption (in Turkey there is tax deduction) and an extra support for using art as a tool for societal well-being. A relevant report has been prepared by Istanbul Foundation for Culture and the Arts.

Anupama: Here in Singapore, where I am based, the government has stepped in with a multi-million-dollar Arts and Culture Resilience Package, which actively supports digitalisation of existing work and creation of new digital work, offering grants up to 20,000 Singapore Dollars each to over 200 artists and organisations. It also defrays cost of rent, wages and training. In other parts of southeast Asia and in South Asia, however, the fundamental conversation has been about the financial challenges faced by artists and small-to-medium sized arts organisations. Many are dependent on international grants and corporate philanthropy. The future is most definitely precarious for many, many freelancers and civil society organisations, with no solution yet in sight.

3- WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF MOVING TO THE DIGITAL REALM?

As several of you point out, in many countries we observe an increase in online cultural activities. On the one hand this opens opportunities and gives artists a visible place, and on the other it raises challenges, in terms of appropriate remuneration and the possible perception of cultural contents as a pastime while people are forced to stay at home. As Anna says, the crisis also sheds light on the weakest parts of the system. What do you think about this, and about how to address it?

Lázaro: In the case of Panama, #Miculturaencasa, a digital program held by national artists has been a quick response measure to pay artists for the contents the Ministry of Culture and the National Broadcasting System (SerTv) are offering. They also bought already-made products. All this, of course, does not mean an ideal payment but a way to allow some payment for those cultural workers in the public performance areas. My concern is linked not only to paying to artists but also cultural workers related to the cultural product. They are experiencing the worst part, considering that they are linked to field production.

Lilian: It seems to me that the crisis increases challenges already raised by the digital market of cultural content (the difficulties encountered today with digital consumption during the covid-19 crisis are not completely new). The increase in online cultural activities sheds light on these challenges and the need to address them, including with public policies.

Anna: Different to the beginning of the crisis where everything and everyone seemed to offer its services, shows etc. online for free, I can now see a slight shift in the online world: Music teachers, singers etc. are offering their “regular” training and courses virtually which seems to work quite well, adapting to mirror-inverted keyboards in videos etc. Further, public players are also adapting their programmes to the new reality, such as the Goethe-Institut with the new cultural calendar Kulturama.digital which features shows, films etc. from all over the world, both free and on-demand.

Piatã: The digital marketing strategy (for any kind of market) mainly works by offering first for free, then charging for it in different ways (sometimes for a deeper or wider experience for those who want it). I believe culture must take this step if the sector “wants” to be more economically sustainable. That doesn’t mean losing its pure artistic content, on the contrary, it gives the opportunity for people that value culture to maintain it. In my view, that is the necessary shift that the cultural sector must take (and is taking in each time larger steps).

Anupama: I think we are beginning to see serious discussions on resilience and sustainability for the arts ecosystem as a whole. How we will build a sustainable future with support for the smallest and weakest of our arts organisations, remains to be seen. I am curious to see if we will be brave enough to re-imagine radical new systems for the future, or if we would simply go back to old ways of doing things, when the crisis subsides.

Gokce: As mentioned in the first answer, artists are very critical about the opportunities that digital platforms are offering related to the continuity of the arts but there are several efforts for gathering individual artistic transmissions through portals. Culture management-related new media agencies are also developing portals, as interfaces for live event management. Besides, in several arts related hackathons, not only in Turkey but throughout (examples from Italy, Latvia, etc.) digital experts show an interest for live performances and exhibition design facilities but lack authentic arts and culture related knowledge.

*This DIALOGUE IN CONFINEMENT will continue in a post of next publication.

* Image: Dan Witz: https://www.danwitz.com/

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